Each of Jesus’ parables has many layers. That’s why they’re so popular – and powerful.
Look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, told during a dialogue with a religious leader who had asked what was necessary for eternal life. Jesus turned the question back to him, asking, “What is written in the law?” The man responded, “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
After Jesus commended him for the answer, the man asked, “Who is my neighbor?” At this point Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, ending with the question, “Who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
Of course it was the Samaritan. Being a Samaritan made the story all the more powerful. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. Automatically, the idea of “neighbor” became very, very broad – including virtually everyone.
That definition of neighbor is the first and obvious layer of the Parable. Indeed, in today’s world of so many fracture lines among various kinds of people, to suggest such a responsibility to all of God’s people is a profound imperative.
But the story has a second layer. Three kinds of person encountered the traveler who had been beaten and robbed: The robbers who nearly killed him to get his possessions; the religious leaders who “passed by on the other side;” and the Samaritan who helped him. Each demonstrated a distinct philosophy of life.
The robbers’ philosophy was, “What’s yours is mine – and I’ll take it.” The religious leaders’ philosophy was, “What’s mine is mine – and I’ll keep it.” The Samaritan’s philosophy was, “What’s mine is yours – and I give it to you.”
It’s easy to see all three ideas being lived out in today’s variety of people. In that regard, Jesus would have us see that it’s not just those who take from others who diminish life, but also those who are blind to or indifferent about the needs of others. Such selfish protection of “what’s mine” in people can be just as cancerous as actually causing the suffering in the first place.
Such an awareness leads us to the story’s third layer. It’s the discomforting question: “Which of the three kinds of people am I?”
Oh we love to applaud the generosity of the Samaritan, but it’s more important to be honest about which role we would assume in the story? More importantly, which role do we assume in life day after day after day?
And the parable has a fourth layer. Who are the wounded in today’s world? The truth is that there are too many of God’s people who are numbered among the wounded. We’re easily aware of them when we read about them in some distant location. We recognize them when the wounds are so obvious and crippling.
However, the question may be if we can see and respond to even the modest wounds and isolations that are found all around us? Do we recognize the wounds in those who are (even temporarily) homeless? Do we feel the anguish of the youth who is being bullied in school? Do we accept any responsibility for the subtle racial or ethnic bias that undermines the confidence of and robs the hope from others in our community?
We know that Jesus was a masterful teacher, telling stories whose many layers hit home to us in our daily lives. The real question, however, is whether or not we are genuine students of that Master Teacher? Do we let the truth of his stories sink into our hearts? Do we allow the painful lessons to take root in our daily actions? Do we offer our measure of God’s love to all our neighbors?
William McCartney is a retired United Methodist clergy and an emeritus professor from The Methodist Theological School.